IT Employment

Is perfectionism killing your career?

In a time when adaptability is the name of the game for success, the rigidity of perfectionism may be an unwanted trait.

If you're a manager, it seems like you would seek out people who want to be perfect in everything they do. Especially if you're an IT manager who gets hounded by hoards of end-users for any mistakes, it would seem that having a few perfectionists on the staff would be ideal.

According to one TechRepublic member who emailed me, however, that's just not the case. This guy is an IT manager who is finding that the perfectionist on his staff has become a major bottleneck, and he can't figure out what to do about it.

"One of the guys who reports to me--I'll call him Norm--is a perfectionist. It takes him twice as long as anyone else to perform a task because he has to make sure every detail is perfect. This is a great trait for someone who is programming code I guess, but Norm is running some projects for which just producing something outweighs the need for perfection. The amount of attention he devotes to the minutiae just isn't worth it in the cases of the projects he works on. He's becoming a bottleneck, and gets pretty ticked off if anyone says anything.

We're a very laid-back group otherwise, and I'm an easy-going manager. He really doesn't have to fear any kind of dire repercussions from mistakes so I don't know where all this is coming from."

When I was younger I had some perfectionist tendencies. Sometimes I wouldn't stick with something if I didn't think I could do an outstanding job. Mediocre just wasn't an option. That was partly why I had to give up cage wrestling.

Seriously though, if you're dealing with the true perfectionist personality type, the situation is not likely to change on its own. Perfectionists suffer from a fear of failure, and failure to them is "not perfect." And because they're so afraid of failing, perfectionists will become immobilized and fail to do anything at all (procrastination). Because many perfectionists also suffer from low self-esteem, they also see any kind of constructive criticism as terrifying and they lash out.

Psychology Today, in a piece called "Pitfalls of Perfectionism," described the condition this way:

You could say that perfectionism is a crime against humanity. Adaptability is the characteristic that enables the species to survive-and if there's one thing perfectionism does, it rigidifies behavior. It constricts people just when the fast-moving world requires more flexibility and comfort with ambiguity than ever. It turns people into success slaves.

You might want to sit down with Norm to make sure there's no underlying reason that he feels like his output needs to be perfect. Maybe you're intimidating him without knowing it. But if that's not the case, and he is just a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, you can try altering the types of projects you give him. Also, implement mini-deadlines on each arm of the project so you can ensure he's keeping a normal pace.

Here's a good piece from About.com called "Overcoming Perfectionism: How To Develop a Healthier Outlook," that might help him conquer his issues. Ultimately, you have to decide if his behavior is enough of an impediment to your shop that you have to consider transferring him or letting him go. I hope not. I hope that he can work things out. But, if not, there may be another company or line of work for which his perfectionism is completely suited.

If you're reading this and suspect you might be a perfectionist, you can take this test from Discovery Health.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

101 comments
RayJeff
RayJeff

I have a friend who is new to the IT field. Her personality isn't of a perfectionist, but when it comes to work, she is. What's making her perfection a hindrance in her case is that she is new to IT. She wants to do everything perfectly. But because she's literally getting the crash course in IT on the job, she comes down very hard on herself when something she does at work doesn't turn out right. I, along with her co-workers have been assuring her that she is doing well. Actually much better than most newbies to the IT world when it comes to picking up the fundamentals. But, it hasn't stopped her from still being hard on herself. I keep telling her that she has to crawl before she walks. It's the way that it is because of not having an IT background. And then, there is her fear of not being taken seriously because she's a woman, even though she works with other women (who have more experience). Then again, she's somewhat of a know-it-all as well. How does everyone feel about this particular situation of person whose a perfectionist?

madmalc567
madmalc567

If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Doing it well can mean applying an appropriate amount of effort because more would be inefficient.

acr
acr

I moved from the motorcycle industry to repairing computers. My perfectionism took me far as I was a "toy" mechanic but now is hurting me as most folks treat their system as just an appliance. I need to somehow find a middle. I was ONLY 47 on the test! Feared an 80+!

TtFH
TtFH

This article, and the links, explain something I've only just started to realise about myself. It's taken a long time. I don't care how I get there, and don't care about procedures as long as the desired result is achieved - but that result has to be perfect or I'm disappointed, and that disappointment is what I remember, and focus on, and brood about. Over 20 years ago, I prepped and resprayed a motorbike using spray cans, and although the bloke I eventually sold it to was astonished at the quality of my work (yes, it was good), I can still tell you exactly what and where the flaws were. These days I write documentation and find myself reviewing, changing, reviewing, changing and reviewing, unwilling to release the document because it's not perfect. When it's released, I immediately spot new flaws and/or improvements I could/should make. My boss thinks I'm really good at my job, but I think I'm a fraud - because my output's not perfect. I don't seek perfection in others, and understand that achieving perfection is often unnecessary as long as the message is understood. But by crikey I can be hard on myself if I don't reach perfection. Thanks Toni. This article has arrived at a very appropriate (but not perfect ;^) ) time for me. Now I'd better put "Plan be slightly less than perfect and still be happy about it" into action. Tony F

DesD
DesD

Most of the responders here, as a result of their own experience, don't automatically assume that Norm the perfectionist is wrong and the manager is right, even if that's how it seems in the telling. There isn't enough data to make that call, because one manager's perfectionism is also a skilled worker's normal standard of output. Philip Crosby made Deming's work relevant beyond manufacturing, to occupations like IT. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_B._Crosby I spent four years as part of a team teaching every new hire the 4 principles in that wiki entry, and found that people have more trouble with zero defects than anything else, because they interpreted it as (absolute)perfection, rather than as conforming to requirements. It's not just NASA that needs zero defects; I used to ask my class "how many times a year is it acceptable for you, when you go home from work, to end up at the wrong house?" Stunned silence. OK, but if you DID end up at the wrong house, does that successfully complete the task? And then the lights would begin to go on.

scotth
scotth

Definition of perfect: Perfect is when it's good enough to do the job intended in the most productive manner. Anything beyond that, i.e. less productive, is imperfect. Drill that concept into his head.

John Creevy
John Creevy

"Perfectionists suffer from a fear of failure, and failure to them is ?not perfect.? Because many perfectionists also suffer from low self-esteem" What a croc! The problem is not in a fear of failure or from low esteem. It is one of two things. 1.) a problem in our society where not doing the job right is OK. To me, that is a major problem. The mantra needs to be "Doing the job right, the first time." Period. Acceptance of anything else is lazyness and an ignorance of what the true costs of bad work are to the bottom line. - Remember businesses are in business to make money. Going over bad work that was allowed to be completed so-so costs money. 2.)The other problem could be in the ammount of time it may take to do the job right above and beyond what others take to do the same job. If we are comparing apples to apples, --- good, thorough and complete work done right ---- that takes one person way too long to do than another then that becomes a problem with the individual. That can be corrected by sharing best practices, knowledge sharing, process development and training.

rlogan
rlogan

Our society currently creates pedestals for great athletes, great academics, artists, etc. I think our culture is starting to hold the attitude that if we cannot be the best, why bother trying? I take offense to the statements that perfectionism is the result of low self esteem and fear of failure. Why can it not be considered striving for artistic achievement? Life is art, that includes your career. How are you expressing yourself? I once almost lost my entire business because I interchanged two digits on a part number. Is it perfectionism or attention to detail I need? How will your sloppiness manifest itself in the end; a slap on the wrist or something much bigger? We won't know until it happens will we? I agree with another comment, most managers want perfection but are unwilling to pay for it.

mga
mga

Ellis, the famous psychologist, reminds us to not think irrationally. Wanting to create a perfect world may be part of that irrationality, but judging by this generation's need to be laid back, maybe we could learn to live with some perfectionists who drive for high quality, especially where it is needed in IT. Given the patches and challenges that they cause for coding errors, maybe perfectionism for some team members is a good thing and we must learn to be tolerated by the project plan or built into it anyway. Good PM professionals need to develop a tolerance for the ambiguity that comes with having a perfectionist on board. M.Gene Aldridge World Marketing, Inc

Englebert
Englebert

I remember a project I worked on many years ago. The other developers were racing by me. How in the world are these guys so fast, I asked myself ? Then, we went into the next phase of testing. Their work kept crapping all over, while I twiddled my thumbs with nothing to do. Understandably, there is a line to be drawn between the two extremes. But remember this, sometimes the smallest flaw can have huge consequences

tbmay
tbmay

Perfection at no cost. ....and, of course, they can't have it. I have clients right now that I wish I would have done a better job for but they were UNWILLING to spend the money. They still expect it to work just like they want it to. The fact of the matter is people (management, business owners, etc) resent the money they have to spend in IT. It's not something visible to them so they don't inherently value it. I wish I could say otherwise but it's been something I and my colleagues have experienced with my employers and clients. From what I can tell on this site and others, you guys experience the same thing. The tough part about working in IT isn't the technical aspects of it.

Brendan P
Brendan P

Tony, 1st, I like you column, but this one did not make the mark. While the problem can be real, all to often it is a matter of hiring precision workers, and then condemning then for the very traits that they were selected for. Detailed, technical workers are just that. It is the rare individual that can both be a gifted generalist and a talented master of detail. It is unrealistic, and for that matter, often a sign of poor management to expect otherwise. That said, in the real world, resources often do not precisely match the requirements of the task, either collectively or individually. Whether we like it as individuals, or as managers we have to support people/ourselves for what they/we do well, and get on with working around the limitations. It is seldom useful to waste time on criticisms for such things as perfectionism, especially in technical organization. It is more important to have a structure and attitude that fosters good rapport withing a team and uses talents as needed. It is often that lack that inhibits good task-specific communication and adaptation. Have a great day, Stan

aj3jr
aj3jr

Tell me more about your "cage wrestling" ;) I liked the about.com link, ?Overcoming Perfectionism", near the bottom. It gave some basic info and offered other links. A little bit of perfectionism with a touch of ADD makes project completion a painful experience for me and my wife.

Rowfus
Rowfus

My tech background is originally military, then international defense contracting. The former was rigidly defined because lives could be lost. The latter was such that a misplaced decimal point could cost millions and the wrong word or phrase could cause a diplomatic incident. Both environments require behaviors that might be considered perfectionism, but normal and necessary for the situations. So what perfectionism are we talking about? The article assumes a definition that sees perfectionism as a problem and them argues for a correction; but there are different definitions and variants. As a start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(philosophy) Is perfectionism really a widespread, pressing problem for our industry and/or for people with tech careers? Or is the word an old, well-known, common CYA manuever for managers trying to cram work into inadequate amounts of time and money? It looks like it's both, and if that's so, then the first thing to do is determine if a particular situation is heathy or unhealthy - a psych/personality disorder, or a common managerial CYA tactic that leads to a classic double-bind? The posts have already determined the test - objectivity and consistency. If the employee really does have a psych problem, the psych symptoms will be there and then it's essentially a medical issue. If it's a managerial ploy - "have your cake and eat it, too," - the hypocritical inconsistency will be there. I've seen both and I've been guilty of both. But right now, the quality of the products and services offered by my industry are dropping like rocks off a cliff. It's not like we haven't had great big tragic warnings. The Challenger disaster was one. Does anyone think Roger Boisjoly was a neurtic perfectionist? How about this BP mightmare? Had enough of quick and dirty? How about all those updates that crash programs and systems? How about our national approach to data security? Enough said, except to mention W. E. Deming. There's better way to begin to approach this subject in relation to producing a product. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W.E._Deming Good luck and best wishes, everybody.

GRMDP
GRMDP

I'm going to be mediocre here and not read every word in the article or the replies! Please don't try to equate perfectionism, or completeness, or thoroughness with someone who may have a ?compulsive obsessive? disorder or show that behavior. Mediocrity is a BAD word. If you don?t believe me, go to a job interview, or advise your child, to proudly exclaim that you are ?perfectly mediocre? in all you do. You?d NEVER work for me. People who ARE mediocre always seem to slam those of us who do complete work. I am always going behind mediocre people and completing their work. I could just shake these mediocre people silly. They bring all the hard work and effort ?real? I.T. staff does, into a bad light with our customers. Why don?t you folks who want your task done in a mediocre fashion, hire a mediocre carpenter to make your new deck? Mediocrity has NO place in the ANYTHING in life. If it's worth doing -- then it?s worth taking the time to do it right. -Mac I.T. Tech Supervisor

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Think of it as a hyberbolic equation, or maybe as a limit function for calculus; as you approach perfection, the required resources (time, money, energy, etc.) approach infinity. Perfection is something to shoot for when you have all your eggs in one basket and a super high cost; such as an interplanetary probe. That's one reason why the Voyager spacecraft, and the Mars rovers are able to continue functioning far far past their original programmed mission. In their cases, it's not practical or feasible to replace them. In a business or manufacturing environment; replacement is part and parcel of the concepts of assembly line thinking and planned obsolescence. You know things are going to fail, or have defects, and plan to make replacements or corrections. Since most defects of that nature are not show-stoppers, everyone accepts a degree of inefficiency. This is especially true in interpersonal relationships; from individuals to entire nations. And this happens in healthcare all the time. Sure, we can build an artificial heart that will last a thousand years, but if the person is only going to live to 88, that's wasted time, effort, and money to put a "perfect" product inside him today.

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

Many industries require 99.99% reliability (telecommunications, military, air trafffic control, airplane controls). If the perfectionist really is a problem then manager can encourage him to move where he would be valued.

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

Before doing anything about a perfectionist, calculate cost of re-work on normal projects versus cost of re-work on projects done by perfectionist. You may find that you want everyone on your team to beccome a perfectionist as a cost saving measure.

juancrl
juancrl

Perfect excuses for MEDIOCRE people.

CCCharles
CCCharles

While not killing my career, It's certainly making it utterly miserable! I am constantly being squeezed into tighter and tighter time budgets while still trying to deliver to my own definition of a sufficiently rigorous engineering standard. Having read this article, I realised if I can just loosen my own (admittedly very high) standards against which I measure my own delivery, the customer would probably not notice - they rarely even read my design docs - and I can have a bit more fun doing the design bit which I actually still enjoy! That's theory anyway. Thanks for giving me a way out!

aphillips
aphillips

Since when is the desire to do something properly a bad thing? I would always hope that my dentist, surgeon, pilot, aircraft designer, etc is a perfectionist. Most perfectionists do not have less self-esteem than average just the knowledge that doing things properly is always better in the long term. BTW I have seen basically that same article popping up regularly in Psychology Today since the 70's. I wouldn't take it too seriously.

phineas
phineas

In a world veering rapidly towards 'idiocracy', perfectionism is bound to become a target for criticism.

sriram_vajapeyam
sriram_vajapeyam

A quick way to get the perfectionist to see the manager's viewpoint might be for the manager to have his employee shadow him for a day or week through all his decisions.. If that doesn't do it, then the employee must be a born perfectionist, in which case there must be many other jobs which would warmly welcome such a person..

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

that will most likely get her in trouble.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

and doing the job perfectly are sometimes two different things. In my experience, it takes as much time to get from 5 nines to perfect as it did to get to 5 nines in the first place.

Mark A. Lewis
Mark A. Lewis

It would be unacceptable for a bank to allow a 20% error rate. Also, Federal government guidelines often require a higher percentage of accuracy.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

leaving aside total design and implementaion failures, we are talking optimsation here. Most of the time optimising for X leaves you short of Y and often Z. If you are looking at a speed to market rush job, "prototype no one would me mad enough to sell job" 80% of the resource will need to be spent so you can then have a go at maybe starting to fix the real problem. 80% design, 20% implementation, now that would make sense.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

In my line of work, [i]k[/i] should be as close to zero as possible. Notice I said attempt. Recognizing when the attempt becomes an obsession is key to stress reduction.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Really? I can see why you only chose newbies for that. All you've done there is give a definition of good enough. I often end up at the wrong house, nobody told me I'd moved..... Besides they weren't defects they were features...

tbmay
tbmay

...it were so simple as simply defining it. Believe me, my client relationships have often gotten a bit sour when we negotiate a projects scope. We want even talk about previous employers. Unfortunately both sides probably don't WANT it defined so they aren't confined by a definition. If you can blame someone else, regardless of which decisions you make, you've got a pretty sweet deal. Herein lies the problem. The assumption that either side is actually working in the best interest of the organization is a HUGE one. I wish it weren't so but unfortunately you better document things well.

rlogan
rlogan

I totally agree with you John. In fact I had the reputation of being a bit slow because I spent extra time on doing the job right (old research once revealed the 10 to 15% extra effort resulted in excellent work - probably more like 30% by today's standards). On many of the projects I worked on I would find myself delightfully telling some contributors "There's never enough time to it right but there is always enough time to do it twice!"

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

But in business long term is the next fiscal report or a promotion. Quality is seen as a cost that can be deferred as far as they are concerned, therefore in the short term it's cost saving, therfore you have increased profit, therefore tea and medals all round. We work in the real world, they are in charge, so fair enough. I just wish they'd stop whinging about not getting what they paid for when self evidently they got exactly that.....

Mark A. Lewis
Mark A. Lewis

Absolutely spot-on! Why on earth would a manager not want someone to be thorough in the way he does his job? I'd never be comfortable working for a manager like the one in this article. Mediocrity is a huge quality, and even a safety issue. How about all of these recent car recalls with Toyota, Ford, Chrysler and GM. Just let the warranty take care of the problem, huh? Ridiculous!

Dknopp
Dknopp

....doctor for that open heart surgery

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

increases current costs. Coping with doing it later is the problem of your succesor after you get promoted for 'saving' the business loads of money.....

CCCharles
CCCharles

Says the guy in EDUCATION!! I'm sure your classroom is a BARREL of laughs! NOT :-(

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

you spend 90% of your resources dealing with 5% of the solution. I believe that is the defacto definition addressed by the article. As others have pointed out the 5% is a moving target and you do tend to get kicked if someone up the line deems it important. They usually aren't around to tell you before hand about prioritization tho...

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Can you afford perfect teeth, the best treatment possible, the best designed airplane. Even if you can, will you get it. How will you know you have. Does perfect = never go wrong last forever, remain fit for purpose nd meet all future purposes. As a commercial dev you have to accept the business basis behind good enough. Most of us do. Business people who accept the ongoing cost of good enough, they are a bit more rare.

CCCharles
CCCharles

As the child of a perfectionist, I have to agree with the Psych Today article in terms of my own experience. It HAS led to low self-esteem and a fear around failure - to the extent of not being willing to try things unless I think I will be perfect at them 1st time - which of course I neevr will be, so I try nothing! I've had to work very hard to overcome these tendencies, so please don't dismiss it quite so quickly!

aphillips
aphillips

A manager who wants quick and dirty is one who will end up with big problems later. Unfortunately, it is much harder to get programmers to do a reasonable job than a lesser one.

RayJeff
RayJeff

You are so right, Nick. I've tried to tell her that. I've told her that I can understand why she feels she has to feel that she has to be a know-it-all, be better than other, because she is a woman and how women are seen in I.T. But, I have to constantly tell her that she has made it. That she is taking her work seriously and is actually trying to learn her craft. She's caught on much quicker than most women I know in I.T.. SO, she has nothing to prove to me and to anyone else...but you know how that goes.

DesD
DesD

good enough? And if so, how do you know you've ever finished a job?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Wanting to become greater than one's master... it's in one's own mind. Not seeing good as good enough, wanting assurance of one's capabilities, and wanting it only in being the best. She should learn how the greatest are wrong too sometimes, and how one needs peers to cover one's blind spots, and to give ideas when one pulls only blanks all of a sudden. No textbook for that though.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

She's not trying to prove how committed she is, she's trying to prove what a good tech she is.

RayJeff
RayJeff

My friend did catch on much quicker than most people I know too, regardless of gender. And what made me stick with wanting to mentor her was the fact that she was genuine in wanting to learn and not wanting to cheat her way through. As for her fighting her perception of my perception..I've told her, and keep telling her that she has nothing to prove to me. She's already shown me how committed she is.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

to see if you are looking back to see me looking back at you... The perception of a perception - dangerous stuff. That there device is very very hard to disarm.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]She's caught on much quicker than most women I know in I.T.[/i] In my experience, if she's caught on quicker than most women I know in I.T, she's caught on quicker than most [u]people[/u] I know in I.T.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Who defines whether they are met? Not us is it? Requirements change as you meet them. They change because you meet them. They change as they are implemented. They weren't right in the first place. They were unachievable. The tech choices either were or became wrong. Someone important stuck their oar in. Some stakeholder got a say for no reason other than they hadn't yet and it was a political necessity to give them one. That's not counting training, domain knowledge, re-prioritisation, retention, documentation, componentisation, refactoring, re-engineering... What use is pointing at the requirement and saying we've met it when it's no longer relevant? Change is a given, all a requirement does is postpone change so you have time to change to meet it. So your somewhat naive and simplistic definition of good enough is only useful as an internal book keeping measure for software providers. It isn't going to give you a happy customer with what they want. All it means you get paid or promoted by presenting it as a success. Until those who manage software production accept that change is a given because it's soft ware all you are doing is fiddling while requirements city is burning... If was that easy we'd get it right more often wouldn't we?